Gone are the days when the only face of space exploration was NASA. A new actor has stepped onto cosmic stage: SpaceX.
SpaceX Founder Elon Musk has been vocal about the private company’s ambitions. They intend to beat NASA to Mars, with a manned mission planned for 2024. They even plan to one day send hundreds of people to Mars at a time — permanently.
Eric Swedin, a professor specializing in the history of science at Weber State University, explained the advantage SpaceX’s private entity status grants it over NASA.
“They concentrate all their development and manufacturing in one location,” Swedin said. “By doing that, it just speeds up communication, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to develop their rocket so much cheaper.”
Swedin said due to NASA’s status as a government entity, it moves much more slowly than SpaceX.
“Because NASA is funded by Congress, there’s a strong incentive to spread the work around as many congressional districts as possible,” Swedin said. “By spreading this all around, that really slows down communication, which slows down the feedback loop you need in an innovative environment.”
Connor Turpin, SpaceX fan and WSU student, believes NASA’s problem with oversight is precisely why SpaceX’s progress is exciting to follow.
“SpaceX is a private company that can just make decisions to do things,” Turpin said. “Why do you think they shot a car into space and put it on the internet? They can do what they want. If we want new innovations in space technology, they’re a much better bet.”
However, Swedin emphasized neither SpaceX nor NASA is superior to the other.
“I don’t mean to negate anything NASA has done,” Swedin said. “SpaceX could never have happened without all the groundwork NASA laid.”
A common misconception is that NASA and SpaceX are competitors. In reality, they’re more like collaborators.
“NASA has awarded a contract to SpaceX,” Swedin said. “SpaceX has been launching out of Cape Canaveral on NASA missions.”
He added that SpaceX isn’t the only private player in space exploration (though it’s ahead of the game). One company in particular, Blue Origin, is being funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, have also funded private space exploration companies.
John Armstrong, NASA astrobiologist and WSU physics professor, expounded on the collaborative relationship among NASA and private companies.
“There have always been private companies that have provided services for NASA,” Armstrong said. “What’s really happened is they’ve flipped the roles.”
Armstrong said private entities would put in a proposal to be the company to provide NASA with rockets or other equipment. They would then get a grant for several million — sometimes billions — of dollars spread over a number of years to develop the technology.
Armstrong said the difference now is that SpaceX is developing the rockets “on spec.”
“They’re just building and launching the rockets, and then they go to NASA and say ‘Hey, we’ve got this rocket. Would you like to pay us to use it?’” Armstrong said.
Astronomers and space enthusiasts alike all seem to be in support of SpaceX’s ambition. One such enthusiast, Amy Eggerton, shared her excitement about SpaceX.
“With so many politics surrounding NASA, it seemed like space exploration became a past phenomenon,” Eggerton said. “When I started hearing about what SpaceX is doing, it made me feel like people wanted to explore again.”
Eggerton believes SpaceX’s ambition is important in the current space exploration theater because it shows that humanity can achieve seemingly impossible things.
“There is so much for us to achieve, and SpaceX makes me feel like those achievements are endless,” Eggerton said.
Swedin expressed skepticism regarding Musk’s goal to reach Mars by 2024. “I think that’s a little aggressive, schedule-wise,” Swedin said. “The plan for going to Mars is not a bad plan — it does have a lot of risks that are higher than NASA would be willing to tolerate.”
Armstrong said one benefit of this new relationship between NASA and private entities is that the business is taking on the risk. As for this model’s sustainability, Armstrong said he is “reserving judgment.”
“I think one of the things that government is really good at is doing things that we aren’t sure will turn a profit,” Armstrong said. “A good vaccine shouldn’t make any money, for example. When I look at space travel, what if it turns out that the thing we’re interested in doing isn’t profitable?”
Armstrong compared colonizing planets with sending tourists into orbit and said while one may be more profitable than the other, it certainly doesn’t further the interests of humanity like the other might.
Marc Taylor, science enthusiast and WSU student, said SpaceX’s plan to send an infrared satellite into space elevates its planet-hunting capabilities above NASA’s.
“It’s supposedly better than the Hubble space telescope,” Taylor said. “NASA isn’t going to send up anything like that soon.”
As an astrobiologist, Armstrong’s primary duty within NASA is to conduct research that leads to the discovery of life outside Earth. He said SpaceX has already crossed paths with NASA in that regard and that this intersection might be where collaboration between the two entities is the most mutually beneficial.
“SpaceX was just tasked with launching our latest planet-hunting telescope,” Armstrong said. “NASA built the satellite, which again has zero profit, but SpaceX was contracted to launch it into space, which is a viable business since they were paid by NASA to do it.”
Armstrong said the emergence of SpaceX poses an interesting future for space exploration as a whole, particularly how government entities handle risk compared private entities.
“We lose seven astronauts, and we stop the space program and figure out what happened before we launch anything else because we don’t want to accept that level of loss,” Armstrong said. “I see businesses as being less risk-averse.”
Armstrong said a business could likely find a group of people who want to make a one-way trip to Mars, referring to Musk’s plan to colonize the red planet.
“Effectively, they’re going to die on Mars — either they’ll crash onto its surface by accident, or they’ll live out their days there and die of old age,” Armstrong said. “I don’t see NASA ever funding a mission like that.”
Armstrong said SpaceX’s high risk tolerance could have a dark side, either for the company itself or potential “unethical actors.”
“I always think of the ‘Alien’ movies,” Armstrong said. “They think they’re just miners, but they’re actually trying to bring back this super dangerous alien organism. I could imagine businesses also maybe sending people someplace and not telling them that they probably will die.”